Saturday, November 17, 2012

Are people naturally good? A discussion.

Provocative question, to be sure. What I mean by that has to do with the notion that we're all autonomous beings who, when we reach the right age, are able to jump into being virtuous, good, people, simply because we're human. It's an idea that's present in classical liberalism, which implies that if by possessing human nature and reason we're automatically predisposed to be good, what happens to us previous to being, say, 16, really doesn't matter.

I mean, it matters if it's traumatic, but, short of that, if things haven't actually hurt someone, if we all inherently know what's right and are predisposed to do it, then surely what parents do or don't do doesn't really matter for those fifteen and some months years. Because we naturally know what's right and what's wrong. If that's the case, then there really isn't much of a need for community to instruct kids except to tell them not to hurt others....but once you do that, you pollute the notion of a free, naturally virtuous, humanity, because when a person reaches an age that people identify as being autonomous it's not clear whether their goodness is because they naturally embody it or because of previous training.

"Naturally Evil" has just as many problems, however, suggesting that the truth may be somewhere in the middle....with people not necessarily being good or bad. "Good" implies something beyond adequacy.

In any case, great criticisms of the idea of natural goodness have come from both the Left and from conservatives. The Left has pointed out the enormous contribution that environment gives to a person's understanding of the world, while the Right has emphasized the importance of values and how they impact a person's life. Environment is much larger than values, and if a person suffers from institutional discrimination because of who they are, they can have all the values they want, work as hard as they can, but it will still be extremely hard to change things. This election cycle has unfortunately seen values being applied to absurd things, like the idea that individuals can afford health care if they're just hardworking and virtuous enough, without the need of any social influence to shape the environment.

However, while changing the environment is extremely important, especially here in the U.S. where environmental concerns have been semi-officially disbelieved in, and where we address them far less than almost any other country out there, having a good environment is not necessarily sufficient for having a good life in and of itself. While things like crime go down dramatically with an improved environment, with more economic equality, with a juster system of society, there are still plenty of people from decent backgrounds who go through life in a very aimless manner, without direction or insight into the world, wondering what it's all about.

They're often opposed by people from more disadvantaged backgrounds who have been able to transcend what they've experienced, and who in the process have attained a strength of character and sense of virtuous behavior that is lacking in the folks who are more advantaged. Because of this difference, the folks who have had to shape their character in order to attain what have attained are better suited to make their way in the world in a meaningful manner. This suggests the importance of values, on top of---not in contravention to--environment, as something necessary for personal satisfaction in life.

So are people naturally good? In my opinion, people are always contextualized within their environment, which interferes greatly with what "naturally" is supposed to happen, but as a secondary factor values are also important in directing people from just being "okay" to being truly good, which benefits not just society as a whole but themselves as well, because what folks learn that makes them good also helps them to get the most out of their own lives.

No comments: